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FRIDAY FEATURE-A Ring of Fire – Israel’s Neighbors in Crisis

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8 Nov 2019
FRIDAY FEATURE-A Ring of Fire – Israel’s Neighbors in Crisis
Nearly every one of Israel’s neighbors are facing serious internal problems. The situation has become so alarming that some analysts have begun to raise the question of whether political, social, economic and sectarian instability in the countries surrounding Israel might prove an even greater danger to the Jewish State then the hostile military and terrorist threat it faced in previous decades.

Israel’s military leaders have been candid in their assessments of the situation, including when speaking publicly. IDF Chief of Staff Lt. General Aviv Kochavi recently said that all of Israel’s fronts are “fragile and could deteriorate.” This week, Maj.-Gen. Aharon Haliva, chief of the IDF’s Operations Directorate, told a meeting of the Treasury Ministry in Jerusalem that “All signs indicate that the next year has the potential to be negative from a security perspective.”

A glance at the map can flesh out the deeper meaning behind these words.

To the south, the regime of Egyptian President al-Sissi has faced street protests in Cairo and Alexandria even as his military and security forces have continued to battle insurgent groups linked to the Islamic State (IS) terror militia in the Sinai. Israel is assisting Egyptian forces in the fight against the insurgency in Sinai and is also in an ongoing dialogue with Egyptian diplomats regarding the situation in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

There, the ruling Hamas administration is facing a chronic shortage of funds, despite regular infusions of cash from Qatar and daily deliveries of humanitarian aid to the general population, facilitated by Israel and donated by the United Nations and other agencies and governments. Although open demonstrations against Hamas by Palestinian residents of the Strip are rare, there is a general feeling of discontent against it which is believed by some analysts to be fueling the growing popularity of Salafi jihadist ideology. Also worrying is the growing boldness and popularity of the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror militia in the Strip.

In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority is led by its 84-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas, who recently declared that he would not stand for re-election to the post which he has been in since 2005 when he won the first and so far only election the PA ever held for President. Regardless of this glaring irregularity, most analysts agree that one way or another, Abbas will likely not be in the picture for much longer, raising the question of who will succeed him and what the consequences of his departure might be. Polls taken among Palestinians who are theoretically eligible to vote in future elections indicate that the most popular candidate to take over the role of leading the PA is Marwan Barghouti, who was imprisoned by Israel in 2002 for his role in carrying out several lethal terror attacks against Israeli civilians during the First and Second Intifadas.

Other polls indicate that the estimated 2 million Palestinian residents of the West Bank (including the eastern neighborhoods of Jerusalem) hold the PA in low esteem, but analysts are quick to point out that this doesn’t mean they’d rather be ruled by Hamas or any of the other Palestinian armed factions, much less Israel. In general however, the polls indicate that this population is unhappy with the status quo but also keenly aware of how much worse things could always get, ironically making them perhaps the least concerning of Israel’s neighbors.

A bit further to the east is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Israel recently marked the 25-year anniversary of the 1994 Peace Treaty with Jordan and the armed forces of the two countries have not engaged in kinetic battle since the 1967 Six Day War. However, the peace between the governments of Israel and Jordan and the cooperation between the military, intelligence and security establishments in both countries does not extend to the general population, which remains deeply hostile to Israel. Beyond that, Jordan’s internal problems are huge, with periodic street demonstrations against the King and a chronically weak economy which has been exacerbated in the last few years by the need to care for over 1.3 million refugees from the war in Syria.

To Israel’s north, Syria’s endless conflict is “the gift that keeps on giving” in terms of the problems it creates for all its neighbors, including Israel. The flood of jihadists and weapons from all over the world who came to Syria for different reasons in Syria’s civil wars, which began in 2011 and have ebbed and flowed ever since, present a direct threat to Israel’s security, even as the threat from the armed forces of the Assad regime have been reduced.

However, another threat to Israel from the conflict in Syria comes from the destabilization of its other neighbors, especially Lebanon, which suffered its own devastating civil war from 1975 to 1990 and which was always one of the most fragile nation-states in the region. The economic, social, cultural and physical burden of carrying for 1 million Syrian refugees put a tremendous strain on Lebanon’s already weak infrastructure. In October of 2019, massive fires burned thousands of dunams of Lebanon’s forests, while government efforts to fight the fires was disorganized and largely ineffective. This coupled with a proposal to tax Whatsapp and other free online messaging services proved too much for Lebanon’s beleaguered citizens, who took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands to demand a complete overhaul of the system which had governed their country for generations.

The demand to “throw the bums out” extended to the Iranian-backed Shi’ite terror militia Hezbollah, which has a political wing that has been part of the government for over a decade. Although Hezbollah has threatened a harsh response to further challenges, the street protests have continued and even intensified in recent days. A bit further to the east, a similar situation has developed in Iraq.

Although the destabilizing effect of these protests in Lebanon and Iraq are a cause for concern in Israel, they also provide hope that the plans by Iran to build up its proxy militias and other mechanisms to threaten Israel may be dealt a setback. However, analysts have expressed different assessments of how much of a setback Iran might suffer by these popular uprisings.

A report released this week by the highly respected International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank in London posits that Iran has “tipped the balance of effective forces in the Middle East in its favor by countering superior conventional forces with influence operations and use of third-party forces.”

This Iranian strategy is most visibly manifested in Hezbollah, which possesses an estimated 120,000 rockets which it can fire into Israel whenever the clerical regime in Teheran gives them the order to do so. But Iran has also attempted to build up proxy military forces in Syria amidst the chaos there and it also has influence in several other countries in the region. This includes Yemen, where an ongoing, multi-dimensional civil war, coupled with one of the world’s most horrible humanitarian crises, has rendered it one of the largest ungoverned spaces in the world. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently warned that the IRGC might try to use bases it has in Yemen to launch cruise missile and/or drone attacks against Israel similar to its attacks against Saudi Arabian oil installations in early October.

Further afield, the ongoing instability in Algeria, Libya and Sudan, coupled with hostility from its once-close ally Turkey and even the escalating dispute between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus regarding the exploration of natural gas resources in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean mean Israel finds itself in the middle of an increasingly intense “Ring of Fire” converging on it from all sides.

Israel’s military, intelligence, civil defense and security establishments are reportedly working around the clock to prepare for the day, perhaps not far off, when they will find themselves directly dealing with these issues. Their work, however, is hampered by the ongoing political impasse which is preventing the formation of a governing coalition in Israel’s Knesset.

In any case, Israel’s supporters around the world will be closely watching and praying as the “Ring of Fire” surrounding the Jewish State heats up and contracts.


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